Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart shared edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.
Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.
Part 43: Velazquez makes contact with the Confederate prisoners of war in the Union prison and tells them to be ready to launch a massive breakout.
At Parkersburg, I met Gen. Kelley again and had a talk with him in which he laughingly suggested that I seemed to be in as much of a hurry to go West as I had been to go East the last time he saw me.
I remarked that in wartimes the enemy had a way of putting in appearances at various points of the compass, and that we had to go for him wherever he happened to be, if we didn’t want him to come to us. I also hinted, with a little maliciousness, that perhaps the reason why the war had lasted so long was because so many of our generals, instead of going after the rebels wherever they were to be found, insisted on waiting for them to come to places where it would be most convenient to fight them.
The general said there was some truth in that and that if all the generals were as smart about doing what they had to do as I seemed to be, the rebels would have been whipped long ago. It is pleasant to have commendation even from those we are fighting against, and I felt flattered at the general’s good opinion of me, although I knew that he was really not aware what good cause he had to commend my smartness. I wondered what he would say about me if he should suddenly discover what kind of an errand I was then really on. … I parted from the general, with Cincinnati as my next objective point, with a full expectation that ere long he would hear of me, or at least of my work, in a way that would astonish him.
After leaving Cincinnati en route for Sandusky, I was introduced by the conductor to a lieutenant who had in charge twenty-seven Confederate prisoners. These he was taking to Sandusky to be placed on Johnson’s Island, and I, consequently, thought that he might be an advantageous person to know, and that if I could manage to get into his good graces I might in some way advance the interests of the scheme I was engaged in. …
This officer was a rather flashy young man who evidently thought that he cut a very dashing figure in his uniform and whose mind was given rather to reflection on his own importance than to the acquisition of useful knowledge. He was not, however, without a certain amount of good sense, and he made a far from disagreeable traveling companion, for we speedily got tolerably well acquainted, and he not only was very attentive but he entertained me not a little by his conversation.
Not knowing what use I might have for him, I tried to be as cordial as possible, and long before we reached Sandusky we were on the best of terms. I did not find out a great deal from him that was worth knowing, for the reason, perhaps, that he did not know anything. He, however, permitted me to have a talk with the prisoners, whom I questioned as to what commands they belonged to, when they were captured, and other matters, and gave them each a dollar apiece out of Col. Baker’s money. Beyond asking them questions, I did not say a great deal to them, for I could not know how far they were to be trusted but I looked much more than I said, and several of the more intelligent among them exchanged significant glances with me, which intimated that they understood that I had a purpose in view in cultivating the acquaintance of the lieutenant so assiduously and was disposed to befriend them by any means in my power.
As to the lieutenant, he took such a decided fancy to me and was so excessively gallant that he insisted upon paying all my incidental expenses along the road. To this I could not, under the circumstances, permit myself to make any objections, but I was unable to avoid wondering whether it was his own cash or that of Uncle Sam’s he was so very free with. That, however, was no concern of mine, and it would have been even more impolite for me to have asked him the question than to have declined to permit him to pay my bills.
It was midnight when we reached Sandusky. The lieutenant, attentive to the last, put me in the hotel coach and, requesting me to keep an eye on his satchel, he excused himself for a few minutes until he could dispose of his prisoners. I do not know what he did with them but while I was waiting for him, I was also wishing heartily that they would manage to give him the slip and escape. Before a great while, however, he made his appearance again and jumped in the coach. We then drove to the hotel, where he registered my name and procured me a room. After seeing me safely installed in my quarters he said goodnight and expressed a hope that he would have the pleasure of escorting me to breakfast in the morning.
When I awoke the next morning I went to the window, and, drawing the blinds, looked out upon the lake, seeing in the distance what I supposed to be Johnson’s Island. This little piece of ground, rising off there so serenely and beautifully from the bosom of the lake, was to be the scene of my next great effort in behalf of the Confederacy — an effort that, if crowned with success, would bring me more credit and renown and would do more to promote the success of the cause than all the fighting and campaigning I had done.
On it were thousands of brave Confederates, who were sighing for their homes in the sunny South, sighing to be once more on the battlefield fighting for Southern independence, and, all unconscious that the moment was approaching when one good blow rightly struck would not only put an end to their irksome captivity but would go far to secure all that they had taken up arms for, all that they had suffered for on the battlefield and in the prisons of the enemy. It was a great responsibility that rested upon me, this preparing the way for the grand attack which was to transfer the seat of war to these beautiful lake shores, that was to effect the release of these prisoners, and that was, perhaps, to end the war, and I trembled to think that, perchance by some trifling slip or mistake, the whole scheme might miscarry and come to nothing.
When I was dressed, I rang the bell for the chambermaid to take my card to the lieutenant to let him know that I was ready for breakfast. When the woman came, I asked her if that was Johnson’s Island, where the rebel prisoners were kept. She replied that it was, and that she wished they were away from there. I asked her why, and she said she was afraid they would break loose some time and burn the town. I told her I guessed there was no danger of anything of that kind happening, as there ought to be soldiers enough to guard them. She did not appear to be at all sure upon this point but seemed to think that a general stampede of the prisoners was a very likely thing to happen. I was of about the same opinion, although I did not tell her so, but followed her downstairs to the drawing room, where I found my lieutenant waiting to take me in to breakfast.
During the progress of the meal the lieutenant said that he would have to go over to the island with his prisoners, but that he would be back about eleven o’clock, when, if I would permit him, he would get a team and we would take a drive. I thanked him but declined on the plea that my engagements would not permit of my accepting his kind invitation, although I might be able to do so at some future time. He said he was sorry but that he was afraid he would not be able to permit himself the enjoyment of my company much longer, as it would be necessary for him to return the next day, at the latest. I professed to be sorry but was not very much so, for I wanted to get rid of him, having come to the conclusion that he was not likely to be of much more use to me, while if he pursued me with his attentions he might prove a serious impediment to the proper execution of my plans.
So soon as he was well out of sight, I went to the telegraph office and sent dispatches to the Confederate agents at Detroit and Buffalo, announcing my arrival, and received their responses. This duty performed, I started for the boat that was to carry me over to the island.
While crossing to the prison camp, where so many of my comrades were confined, my mind was filled with a thousand suppositions as to what might happen. The least accident might bring the whole great scheme to nothing, and I felt a nervousness and a dread of consequences at the idea of undertaking the task before me that I had never experienced when facing the enemy on the battlefield. So far as any personal danger was concerned, I was no more sensible of fear than I was when the bullets were flying thick and fast around me but it was a terrible sensation, that of feeling that the fate of a magnificent campaign was in my hands and that upon my good management would depend whether it could ever be inaugurated or not. The sensation was such as a general might feel when making the first movement in a great battle upon which the fate of a nation depended. I did not lose anything of my coolness or my resolution but I could not help being oppressed, in some degree, with the weight of my responsibility and could not help wondering whether I would succeed in doing, in good style, what I had been assigned to do, or if, after I had finished my part of the work, my associates would have the skill and courage to do theirs.
On arriving at the island, I showed my letter from Baker to the commanding officer and explained to him that I was searching for a rebel spy who was supposed to be engaged, or to have been engaged, in some plots which the authorities at Washington were desirous to learn the particulars of. My credentials were recognized as correct, and I was accordingly admitted … into the enclosure and permitted to speak freely to the prisoners.
My greatest fear now was that some of the Confederates would recognize me and would say or do something incautiously that would lead to my detection. I was known to a good many in the Confederate service, both officers and men, as a woman, and to a great many more as a man, and there was no telling but that someone among the prisoners might be heedless enough to claim acquaintance with me and thus spoil everything.
Glancing around the enclosure, however, I could see no signs of recognition on any of the faces of the prisoners, although a number of them were gazing curiously at me, and after a bit I began to breathe a little freer and to be able to inspect the men rather more closely, with a view of picking out a suitable one to communicate with.
At length, I spied a young officer whom I had known slightly when I was figuring as Lt. Harry T. Buford, and who I knew to be a particularly bright, intelligent fellow. I concluded, therefore, to speak to him, and calling him to me, asked him a few immaterial questions until we had walked away out of earshot of the others.
When we were where no one could overhear us, I said, “I am a Confederate and have got in here under false colors. I have something important to say to you.”
“I hope you have some good news for us.”
“Yes, it is good news, at least I hope you will think it is, for it concerns your liberation.”
“Well, that is good, if it can be done, for we are mighty tired of this, I can tell you.”
“It will depend a great deal on yourselves whether anything can be done but if the prisoners will only co-operate in the right spirit, at the right moment, with our friends outside, not only will they secure their release, but they will be able to hit the Yankees a staggering blow.”
His eyes sparkled at this, and I saw that he was willing and eager to engage in almost any enterprise that promised to secure his liberation, and I was only fearful that in his excitement he would do something incautious that would interfere with the successful prosecution of our scheme.
I therefore said, “You must be very careful, keep cool, and, above all things, don’t give a hint as to who I am. Say that I am a Yankee, if anybody asks you, and pretend that this conversation was only about how you are treated and whether you do not wish that the war was over, whether you expect to be exchanged soon, and matters of that kind.”
“I will fix that all right. What is it that the boys outside are going to do for us?”
“I have a dispatch here which will tell you what are the arrangements, what the signals outside will be, and what you are to do when you see them. Give it to the party it is addressed to, and consider yourselves under his orders until your liberation is effected. When you are once outside of the prison you will find plenty to help you and will be able to effect some kind of an organization.”
“Well, don’t you want to see the party that the dispatch is for?”
“No, it won’t do for me to talk to too many, and it is better for a number of reasons, in order to avoid any suspicion, that I should not be seen in conversation with him.”
“Well, I’ll give the dispatch to him in any verbal message you may send.”
I then dropped on the ground a package containing eight hundred dollars and said, “There is some money — conceal it as quick as you can, and distribute it among the men as far as it will go.”
He thereupon sat down on a block of wood in front of me and commenced whittling a stick, while I stood close to him with my back to the guard, and with my skirts covering the package. Watching a favorable opportunity, when the guard was looking another way, he seized the package and slipped it into his boot and then went on whittling in as unconcerned a manner as possible.
I then told him that I would leave Sandusky the next day at the latest, and that with the delivery of the dispatch I held in my hand, which contained full and minute directions, my part of the business would be finished, and that the consummation of the scheme would depend upon himself and the others. I cautioned him to be exceedingly wary, and to take none of the prisoners into his confidence unless he was perfectly sure of their thorough reliability.
He promised to be discreet, and then wishing him goodbye and success, I shook hands with him, passing the dispatch as I did so.
The precious paper once in his possession, he started off, whistling and whittling as he went, while I hurriedly returned to the office, when I told the commander that I was unable to find the man I was looking for and thought that I would have to visit some of the other prison camps.
He said he was sorry and hoped that I would have better luck next time. “We then walked together towards the boat, conversing in general terms about the prisoners and the war. At the landing, we met the lieutenant, who seemed to be rather surprised to see me there. He exclaimed, “Why, have you been visiting the prisoners? If I had known that you wanted to see them, I would have escorted you over to the Island.”
I did not care to tell the young man that, under the circumstances, I preferred to dispense with his escort and so only said, “Oh, yes. I thought I would like to take a look at them, and I can tell you, some of those rebels are sharp, if they are backwoodsmen. If you don’t look out, they will be getting away from you someday.”
The officers both laughed, and the lieutenant said, “I guess not — they are always talking about doing that, but they never do it, we have them too fast.”
This was a point which I did not care to argue with him just then, so saying adieu to the commander of the prison, the lieutenant and I stepped aboard the boat and were soon on our way back to Sandusky.